Submission Tracking

Every writer I know has her or his own method for tracking submissions, except for those who don’t. Since I’ve always admired Wallace Stevens as much for his actuarial skills as for his poetry, I’m one of those who does keep track. My check book is always balanced, too.

Many writers use spread sheets and I’ve heard tell of special software designed specifically for the task of submission tracking. I’ve invented my own method that integrates the creative writing half of my brain with the accounting half. So it’s a bit less accounting than the aforementioned methods, but also a bit more entertaining.

I color-code the file name of each piece of writing I have stored on my hard-drive according to it’s current status. Plain black means it needs more work before I send it out. Red means I feel the piece is ready to spread its wings and fly, but either I haven’t nudged it from the nest yet or else it’s come back home to live for a while after the moving out thing didn’t work so well. Blue is for work I’ve sent out but for which I haven’t yet heard anything. Green means a piece has been accepted.

I also keep a note on the bottom of each piece, informing me of where I’ve sent it and when, etc., information I duplicate in one large word document I have oh so creatively named “Submissions List.” The information in “Submissions List” is colored coded as well. Here black means rejection, red means waiting to hear, and green is accepted. Purple, a color I’ve used exactly once so far, means my piece was rejected but somehow the editor made me feel so good about it.

I have one paragraph for each submission. I always include what I sent, where I sent it and when, what they say their reporting time is, and how much they pay. When I hear back I add in the date I heard & what the status is. In addition I sometimes include insights into my mood at the time of submission and rejection. For some reason I’ve found no need for extra notes to myself upon acceptance. Not so with rejections.

I was scrolling back through the entire list earlier today and found some notes I’d forgotten about. I suppose they probably run the typical gamut for a writer’s reactions. Here are some samples:

I have plenty of “will assume it’s rejected if I haven’t heard by now.”

“11/20 sent poem to ‘Poetry of the Sacred’ contest. 02/01 – Didn’t win shit.”

“Rejected in the mailroom, judging by the speed.”

I have a few “rejected, though with a nice note.”

At one point in my list I have 15 rejections in a row with no comment, followed by a sixteenth with the word “sigh” at the end & a seventeenth with the words “boo hoo.”

“5/24 sent three poems to XX…All rejected 07/25/05. Without returning manuscripts, even though I sent adequate postage. So I had false hope when I realized the envelope contained only one page, thinking it was an acceptance. Blppppthhhh!”

“07/27… sent three poems to …XX via snail mail. … Rejected 02/21. They waited long enough that postage rates went up, so they had to add 2 cents to my SASE. Ha! My little unplanned raspberry back at them.”

“09/16… sent essay to XX via snail mail. …Returned 12/05 with illegible handwriting that I assume was a rejection since it included the first page (only?) of my manuscript and no contract. They used the rest of my postage to send me adverts for their mag. Instead of my manuscript.” (Extra note for other writers – I will identify this magazine. It was GreenPrints. Now you know, if you send them something, only include enough return postage for one page.)

11/16…sent essay to XX …  So now it’s double submitted, as I still haven’t heard from YY.  Whoa, I’m getting daring.  Rejected 01/05 with a very nice note saying she was making a point of sending me a personal note to say she found my piece exceptionally well done, but thematically it didn’t fit. I take what consolation I can get.”

“01/22… sent three poems to XX via snail mail…I will have a heart attack if they accept one of my poems. 02/09/06 – no need for the defibrillator.”

“02/06 sent four poems to XX, anthology of poems about motherhood. …made first cut!!! ‘Will likely hear from them again in the fall.’  09/15..Didn’t make final cut.  Too bad their book will be such poor quality.”

“07/11…sent story to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Mag. Pro market.  Snail mail. Rejected 01/16…but it was a “nice” rejection w/handwritten extra note.” (Note: I included the name of this mag as well because I’m still impressed that an editor at such a large publication would take the time to handwrite a nice little extra page.)

“07/25…entered piece in XX writing contest…11/01 Put a big L on my forehead.”

“04/09 sent poetry book manuscript to XX contest ..Because it was a more interesting way of disposing of $25 than flushing it down the toilet.”

**

Since I’m nothing but professional and courteous in my communication with editors, I find keeping this list on my computer is a good way to vent my feelings. Also, I like to remember whether a particular publication is a market I want to try again or not. Maybe my little system is submission and attitude tracking.

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Hiding the Truth With Facts

Several years ago a scientist I knew in the Kansas City area was on a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of atrazine in drinking water. Atrazine is found in some pesticides and a lot was running off from farms in outlying areas, then making its way into the water supply. Soon enough an article appeared in a local newspaper saying studies had shown no increased risk of cancer from atrazine exposure. The article was  technically correct, my friend said, but also dishonest. The dangers from the the chemical, he explained, included disturbing neurological symptoms, and possible heart and liver damage among other things. By discussing only tumors and stopping there, the article was lying by omission, the implication being that there was no danger at all.

I saw something similar on the other side of the environmental divide later on. A different friend vowed off buying “regular” baby shampoos after reading a label on a bottle from the health food aisle in the grocery store saying “contains no numbing agents.” Again, factually correct I’m sure. But also treading on the hairy edge of promoting the false rumor that a well-know brand of baby shampoo does contain numbing agents, though this claim has been thoroughly debunked.

I’ve mulled over both of these incidents several times in the past year or so as I’ve read much discussion about how true memoir has to be in order to be distinguished from fiction. No writer is ever going to get in every fact with complete accuracy, nor do they need to. I think of translating life into memoir as similar to translating a novel to a movie. Some things are going to get cut, some things are going to be changed, and yet you can still end up with a production that is very true to the original. Or not. I give you To Kill a Mockingbird vs. Practical Magic for those who have read and seen both books and movies.

I believe I was an accountant in a previous life: I like accuracy. Even in my fiction, I strive to get facts right. If I have character watch the Apollo 11 moon landing on television, I want to know what day of the week it happened, so I won’t have my person come home from public school on a Sunday and flip on the TV. I’ve made only a few attempts at writing short memoir pieces, but I find it more difficult than I anticipated to resist giving in to a bit of self-serving dishonesty by hiding it with facts. I suppose it’s human nature. I want people to sympathize with me more than with the other characters in my story.

Here’s a memory I haven’t committed to writing before now. I was nine years old, throwing a basketball back and forth with one of my cousins. I flubbed a catch and jammed the ring finger on my right hand. It looked horrible – purple, swollen, the epitome of a body part rendered dysfunctional by injury. Hurt pretty bad, too. But did my mother take pity on me *at all* by releasing me from my dishwashing duties that night? No, she did not, even though she had let my brother off for a similar injury some weeks previous. She wouldn’t even glance at my finger, only saying “The hot, soapy water will be good for it.” And I tell you, I could barely hold those plates, never mind the agony of turning the water faucet handle.

I could compose all of this information into a memoir. I could describe how the hot water in reality increased the swelling. I could describe my feelings of hurt over the blatant favoritism I thought was shown to my brother over me, of the indifference I saw my mother display toward my well-being. I could possibly even dig up some old diary had I been keeping and let my readers know the exact date of the occurrence of what I saw as one of the terrible injustices of my life. I could wrack my own memory and interview family members to try to come up with an accurate description of the dishes I would have been washing. My mom still owns some of them; I could go as far as taking photos.  I could relate all of these true factual facts and leave the impression that my mom treated me with great callousness. Which wouldn’t be honest at all.

Or I could write a different version. I could say it happened when I was eight instead of nine and I could describe the kitchen with the cabinets along the wrong wall and I could say that our plates had pictures of mushrooms when it was really flowers, but then include the larger truth about the context in which this incident occurred. I’m talking about my malingering tendencies during said time period. I had been going through a phase of feigning illness and/or injury in order to shirk my responsibilities. I’m sure my mom was sick of it. There was a good reason for her to ignore my complaints. Looking back I now feel I got what I deserved. My second version would be less factual and more true.

The Right Book at the Right Time

A friend recently shared the information that her daughter had been assigned to read the book Beloved by Toni Morrison for a high school class last spring. The daughter struggled through the text, disliking it all the way through.

Beloved is one of my favorite works of literature. But I first read it in my early thirties, after my children were born. Would I have understood the book at age 16? Parts, I think. Would I have liked it? I’m not sure, but I think not. I came upon the book at the right time in my life, after I’d had enough life experience to be haunted by some true regrets.

Thinking back, I can recall books I’ve read in years past that left me shaking my head in bewilderment. Crime and Punishment comes to mind. I wonder if I should re-read it now. Maybe I’d get it in some fundamental way I didn’t before. Or maybe not.

I did read, enjoy, and understand many “adult-level” books in my adolescence. So I’ve put very few restrictions on what my kids read.  I think they’ll either be ready for a book or they won’t and they’ll figure it out for themselves. Maybe there are hundreds of teens out there who do appreciate Beloved. Maybe there are even some who appreciate Crime and Punishment.

I remember the first true grown-up book I read and enjoyed. It was A Tale of Two Cities. But I had started to read it twice before I finally finished it on the third go.

My 11-year-old son just finished reading the Harry Potter series. When he was younger, we read the first couple of books to him, but he lost interest even as the rest of us in the family were avidly reading and discussing the series. He’d say “I don’t see what the big deal is. I don’t think they’re interesting.”

Then one day around his 11th birthday (the same age as the main character at the beginning of the story), he was looking for something to do, having used his allowed computer time for the day. He spotted Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone lying out on top of the bookcase and picked it up. Two hours later, he looked up and told me “This book is better than I remembered.”

He proceeded to read all seven books straight through. He’d become ready for them.

I think what I’ve figured out is that not only should you not judge a book by its cover. You possibly shouldn’t even judge it by your first reading of it. True, there are many honestly terrible books out there. But sometimes a book I don’t like right off may deserve a second look.